In the last post, we distinguished between the concepts of moral ontology and epistemology. I now propose a leap, and an illustration. If you will make the leap with me, we will come back around and see how and why it is made.
I want to suggest that our knowledge of morality comes from a moral sense.
And the illustration: This is a sense much like our other senses. Sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell…and moral cognition.
How can we do this? Consider one of the examples of an action I gave last time:
I walk down the street at 4.5 miles per hour. Is this right or wrong, morally?
Well, is it right or wrong? Naturally, the answer is that it is neither. When we consider the mere act of walking at a normal speed, we do not detect any moral quality in this action, neither good nor ill. This is a perfectly rational conclusion if we have a moral sense.
I walk down the street at 2 miles per hour, helping an elderly man to his car.
Is this morally good, or wrong? Naturally, it is good – I have assisted someone in his frailty, so that he may avoid pain and suffering as the result of a fall. Here, we detect some quality of the action which was not present in the first example, which we judge to be “good.”
In the same way, our eyes detect light. We can discern between a brighter room and a darker room, even between wavelengths in the spectrum of light, because of our vision. A person who is blind has no such ability, of course. The room may be brilliantly lit, or the lights may be off, and our blind friend would not have the first idea which it was.
These senses both deliver knowledge to us. Our eyes deliver knowledge which no other sense can deliver, and without which we would have no concept of light; and it is just so with the moral sense. None of our other senses or faculties could deliver moral knowledge, and without that sense, we would be toward morality like the blind man is toward light.
Good so far?
Now let’s turn the thing over and look at it another way, which will advance our study. Consider that, if there were no such thing as light, we could not make any sense of our eyes. The very reality of light is a pre-requisite for vision to exist, much less to comport with our experience of having eyes. There wouldn’t be any eyes, one imagines.
Light, then, is an objective reality. It is something which exists independent of us, independent of our thoughts and feelings about it. And we might even distinguish between visual ontology and visual epistemology.
Visual ontology would be the study of light itself, the existence and foundation of light. (One may want to know why light exists at all, or if it was necessary for light to exist in any possible Universe).
Visual epistemology would be the study of our understanding of light. We start from our senses, which deliver immediate knowledge about light (maybe it’s bright, or green, or distant), and we apply our other faculties (namely, our reason) to advance our knowledge (red-shifts in the stars, the wave-particle nature of light, the wavelengths of the different colors).
We want to say something similar about morality. Most of the time, we wrestle with moral epistemology: What is the right thing to do here? How should a person conduct her life? What general principles may we follow, and how can we sharpen our understanding of them?
Yet all of our moral deliberations rest on that which we examine less frequently – that is, moral ontology. And just as our vision is grounded by the reality of light, our morality must also be grounded by some objective reality.
This objective reality has, across the world and over the centuries, been referred to as “the good.”
Next time, we’ll examine the folly of rejecting objective morality (and why so few do it). Then we’ll begin to examine our options regarding this good upon which our morality rests.